Current Affairs

The End of PowerPoint?

I recently read a Fast Company blog about a new political party in Switzerland that wants to make PowerPoint illegal. The Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP) is a new movement formed by Matthias Poehm, a professional public speaker in Switzerland. His goal is to “influence the public to put a stop to the phenomenon of idle time in the economy, industry, research and educational institutions.” To do that, he’s focusing on eliminating PowerPoint entirely. While this sounds like a bad skit from Saturday Night Live, apparently the APPP is gaining momentum. And while Poehm is making the assault on PowerPoint the focus of his platform, he states that he’s really targeting all presentation software.

So what does Poehm have against PowerPoint? His party has done studies on presentation effectiveness, and they’ve found that 85% of participants in meetings think software-based presentations are “killing motivation.” That’s why he wants to get enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in Switzerland to outlaw the tool.

I admit that I’ve seen my share of bad PowerPoint presentations. I’m sure you’ve seen them too: slides filled with wordy sentences in teeny font, no design elements, mixed templates, mutli-layered and complex graphs and charts…it’s enough to make anyone hate PowerPoint.

But if PowerPoint is banned, what’s a speaker to use? Poehm’s suggestion: Flipcharts! While I agree that flipcharts have their place in presentations, to have flipcharts as a presenter’s sole tool may be just as bad as using poorly constructed PowerPoint slides. So rather than outlaw PowerPoint, maybe we should first focus on educating people on how to use it effectively. After all, the tool itself isn’t bad; it’s just the poor application of the tool that gives it a bad name.

Knowing this, here are a few top PowerPoint tips.

1. Prepare your material before you design your slides: Content development should always come before slide design. Therefore, brainstorm, create, organize and structure your message, and then develop your slides. This simple change of behavior will put PowerPoint where it should be—as a visual aid.

2. Create three separate documents: PowerPoint can’t be all things to all people. That’s why your speaker notes, handouts and PowerPoint slide deck should be three separate entities. Yes, this takes extra time, more organization and a bit more work, but no one said that preparing to give a great presentation was easy!

3. Design a slide deck geared for knowledge transfer: Add pictures, charts, graphs, learning models, audio and video clips and other rich images to keep your audience stimulated and engaged. Visuals are vital to knowledge transfer.

4. Consider the power of staging: Your audience relishes design, symmetry, and powerful and pleasing images. And they also need you to be as polished as your PowerPoint. Therefore, a few simple staging techniques, like making sure that your body shadows don’t block the screen, facing front and using pointers effectively, will help you feel and be more professional and more engaging.

5. Memorize your transitions: Develop, refine and memorize your transitions so that you move from slide to slide with grace and ease. Avoid the distracting behavior of constantly looking over your shoulder to see what slide is coming next.

6. Don’t read your slides: The slide is there to enhance your message and to give the audience a visual stimulus that keeps them engaged so you can pour your knowledge into their heads. You are the message and the messenger. Take heed.

The sooner everyone masters these points, the better our chances of preventing the Anti-PowerPoint Party from establishing roots here. I can’t believe I’m saying this...long live PowerPoint!

The Secret to a Woman’s Success – Take Care of Yourself First

I was traveling via air from San Francisco to Maine recently. As the plane was nearing take off, the flight attendants started their usual safety demonstrations. I politely sat through the “how to buckle your seatbelt” and “how to use your seat cushion as a floatation device” spiels. Then, after the demonstration of placing the oxygen mask over your own mouth before assisting someone else, I began to think how useful this advice would be for women in their everyday life. No, this has nothing to do with wearing oxygen masks around town. It’s about helping yourself before helping others—something too few professional women do these days.

I see these over-burdened women every day. They’re typically in their thirties or early forties. They’re trying to excel in their corporate job, trying to raise a family, and trying to participate in their communities. They’re juggling so much and being pulled in so many different directions that they ultimately reach a point where they are completely burnt out. They simply can’t compete at the professional level they need to AND take care of their family AND be active in their communities AND have a life of their own. Something has to give…but what? Too often, it’s their professional pursuits that get put on hold.

Some of these women drop out of the business world completely, some leave their corporations in favor of an independent work pursuit, and some stay where they are in the company but don’t compete for more senior level positions or responsibilities. This is a terrible situation for the business community, as we’re losing countless women—countless resources—who can advance a company, change the organization, and help businesses move from being linear driven to more strategic around communication and relationships.

So what’s the solution? How can we reach women and head them off at the pass before they make the decision to drop out of or diminish their role in the corporate world?

The key is to have women take care of themselves…first.

No one will deny that being pulled in many directions is tough. When you’re in that situation and feeling stressed, it helps to take a time out—go out in nature, go off for a weekend with the girls, go to a spa, or do anything that helps you replenish who you are. Of course, the tugging in all directions will still be there when the “me-time” is over, but when you’re mentally, emotionally, and physically refreshed, you have a better chance of being able to successfully manage it all.

So my request to all women is this: when you feel overwhelmed and that something in your life has to go, that’s your cue to focus on yourself. In today’s world, “me time” is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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Are Your Presentation Skills Your Hidden Strength?

It’s a man’s world. Do you think this statement is obsolete in 2011? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Consider these sobering facts:

  • Only 12 Fortune 500 companies are run by women, down from 15 last year, as three left their posts and were succeeded by men.
  • Women earn 77.5 cents for every dollar a man earns.
  • The more education a woman has, the greater the disparity in her wages.
  • Women work longer to receive the promotions that lead to higher pay.
  • Four in ten businesses worldwide have no women in senior management.
  • Women earn less than men in 99% of all occupations.

There’s no question that women face certain professional challenges. The majority of the time, women are competing directly with men and being held to male standards. Interestingly, there’s one skill set in particular where women outshine men almost every time—that is, communication.  

From my own observations and from talking with other communication specialists, it seems that many men today struggle with communication issues. They’re in senior level positions and want that promotion to the C-level, but their poor communication skills are holding them back. These senior leaders have excellent credentials, advanced degrees, and strong professional experience but when it comes to their presentation and communication skills, they can fall flat.

In contrast, women are naturals when it comes to communication, facilitation, collaboration, and relationship building. Women typically want the relationship to be the driver of business success. They want to communicate openly and develop personal relationships with co-workers, colleagues, clients, and vendors. Yet they’re working in a world where communication is considered a “soft skill” and where personal relationships aren’t valued, let alone developed.   

But here’s the silver lining to this gray cloud: When women get to the point that they’re in the running for top positions, they stand out and compete well. Because women have this foundational piece of strong relationship and communication skills, they have the ability to bring people into a conversation, to get the masses rallied around a cause, and ultimately get others on their side and moved to action. Those are the traits of a true leader.

So rather than dwell on the challenges women face in the world of work, I propose that we focus on our strengths, develop them, and use them to our best ability. Only then will we see the playing field level so everyone can step up and take their career as far as they want it to go.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive valuable tips, techniques and updates on the latest news and events from DeFinis Communications.

A Conversation with Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox…and You’re Invited

I just learned that Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, will be in the Bay Area next Wednesday (6/29/11) giving a presentation with George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research. And here’s the best part of all: You’re invited to attend (and for a discounted rate—see the end of this blog for a special offer for DeFinis Communications readers). The event with Burns and Colony is being presented by the Churchill Club, Silicon Valley’s premier business and technology forum. Titled, When Two Luminaries Meet: Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, in conversation with George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research,” the event promises to be an unscripted, candid conversation between two powerful global business leaders about topics that matter to our economic success as a nation, as companies, and as individuals. Topics for discussion include innovation, the economy, leadership, recent “aha moments,” how they’re viewing the market, and more.

In July 2009, when Burns was first appointed CEO of Xerox, I wrote a blog about the accomplishment. You can read it here. What impressed me about Burns and prompted me to write about her was the fact that she was the first African American woman to lead a major Fortune 500 company. She was also the first woman in modern history to take the reins from another female, departing CEO Ann Mulcahy. Since then, Burns has led Xerox through the acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services, in a move to transform the company once known for copiers into the world’s leading enterprise for business process and document management.

In a world where there are too few women in C-suite positions, we need women like Burns to speak out and show everyone what is possible. Burns wasn’t born with a proverbial “silver spoon” in her mouth. Rather, she was raised in a housing project by a single mother. She beat the odds and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Polytechnic Institute of NYU in mechanical engineering and a master’s from Columbia University. She started at Xerox as a summer intern, and over a 30-year period she worked her way to become the CEO. She serves on boards such as American Express, National Association of Manufacturers, University of Rochester, and the MIT Corporation. She helps lead Obama’s national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and serves as vice chair of his Export Council. In 2009, this impressive woman ranked ninth in Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business. Yet she is known as one of the most down-to-earth CEOs you will ever meet. She is truly the kind of role model we all need.

The Churchill Club has asked Burns and Colony (who was a recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2006) to have a public conversation on the evening of Wednesday, June 29 in Palo Alto, CA. So mark your calendar for this dynamic and inspiring event:

Date: Wed., June 29

Time: 5:30 p.m. Registration and networking 6:00 p.m. Banquet (plated dinner) 7:15 p.m. Program begins 8:45 p.m. Program concludes

Place: Four Seasons Hotel Palo Alto 2050 University Ave East Palo Alto, CA 94303

RSVP: http://www.churchillclub.org/eventDetail.jsp?EVT_ID=907.

Use discount code “gDeFinis15” and get $15 off the non-member price of $107.

Contact Churchill Club at info@churchillclub.org for group discounts.

Hope to see you there!

Oprah’s Farewell: The Final Ovation for One of the World’s Most Influential Public Speakers

Wednesday for Women Celebrates Oprah! Oprah’s legend is…well…legendary. For 25 years, she has been the foundation of daytime TV for millions of people all over the world. And throughout it all, her presence and messages have been uplifting, inspiring and revitalizing.

I recently heard the story of a woman who purchased a pair of Oprah’s shoes at an auction. She said that whenever she feels sad or overwhelmed, she goes to her closet and steps into Oprah’s shoes. Talk about having a powerful influence on people! We all want a piece of those people who we believe have something we don’t possess—greater strength, clearer vision, goodness, talent, confidence. We seek out those people who can fill in our gaps, and for the last quarter century, Oprah has been that person for millions of people.

I have not been able to watch Oprah on a regular basis, but when I have caught her show, I am just as enthralled as everyone else. She has a natural way of communicating that draws us in. Her warm, deep voice, her broad inviting smile, and her easy tone and cadence are engaging. She is the consummate “connector.”

So when you’re looking for a communications role model, look no further than Oprah. Here is my tribute to this great woman and what she means to the world of public speaking:

O – Optimistic. Even when Oprah was covering a negative topic (failed relationships, child abuse story, unusual homicide case, etc.), she always looked for the good that could come in the future. That’s something we should all strive to do every day. So the next time you need to communicate bad news, state it, but don’t dwell on it. Instead, keep your focus on the good that will eventually come from the situation.

P – Prepared. I’ve heard that Oprah is a stickler for details and doesn’t like to be surprised. She and her producers are prepared for everything and anything that can happen during a show. Not only does she have a Plan B, but she also has a Plan C, D, E, and F. Oprah exemplifies that preparedness equals success.

R – Relevant. Oprah knows her main audience and makes every episode relevant to them. Being on her show could make anyone famous (and it has), but her guest list never strayed from the types of people and stories her viewers wanted to see. By making the information presented relevant, she earned millions of eager viewers every day.

A – Authentic. Oprah started her career as a TV news anchor, but she didn’t last long in that role because she had a hard time hiding her true self on camera. Yet, it’s her uninhibited authenticity that made her talk show a success. People tune in to watch her just as much as they tune in to watch the day’s topic. Oprah refuses to hide who she is. She cries on camera with people, shows all her emotions freely, and isn’t afraid to be her authentic self.

H – Humorous. While not a comedian, Oprah makes people laugh in her own way. She doesn’t tell jokes in the traditional manner; rather, she lets her natural humor shine through to diffuse a tense situation, make a point, and put others at ease. She shows that humor doesn’t always have to be about knee-slapping laughter.

Thank you, Oprah, for 25 amazing years…and for so many priceless pieces of presentation skills wisdom.

In my Wednesday for Women blog series, I feature stories, resources and valuable information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please forward these weekly Wednesday blogs to the powerful women in your life. They’ll thank you for it!

San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers Offers Valuable Public Speaking Lessons

Yesterday was the centennial running of the Bay to Breakers foot race. For those of you who have never heard of it, allow me to paint the picture: Over fifty thousand people, a majority of which were dressed in outrageous costumes, took to the streets of San Francisco and marched from the San Francisco Bay all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It was a seven and a half mile trek that weaved through a number of the city’s greatest sights. An event like this truly brings out the vibrant colors of the city and provides fantastic opportunities for people watching. Under cloudy skies, the wild parade of costumed marathoners made their merry way through the enchanting City by the Bay. 

And yes, even in this surreal environment I found lessons that pertain to public speaking.

Preparation is King – Preparing for your Bay to Breakers experience is vital. If you don’t coordinate with your companions, you will wind up lost and alone in an endless tidal wave of Smurfs, trolls, dinosaurs, and cavemen. Instead of being a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, it could be a truly disastrous and lonely experience. Likewise, if you are going to succeed onstage, you must prepare. You don’t want to give yourself the opportunity to make mistakes, so knowing your touch points and memorizing your opening and close and practicing out loud in front of a mirror will be sure to help you keep your cool when you are in front of an audience. 

Poise under Pressure – Without a healthy level of poise and self-confidence, you may not fully enjoy being out in public wearing a ridiculously funny costume. You may feel the desire to hide among the crowd or even bow out of the fun early. And while you likely won’t be presenting in an absurd costume, speaking in front of an audience can be an equally overwhelming experience. Without  maintaining some level of poise, you may make the mistake of fudging a line, forgetting a touch point, or freezing up on stage. 

Have Fun – The ultimate tool you can learn from Bay to Breakers, however, is to have fun. Can you imagine if you attempted to attend an event like Bay to Breakers and were self-conscious about how you were dressed or feared what others would say about you? You would stand out like a sore thumb! You can apply that same principle to being in front of an audience. If you are comfortable with yourself, your audience will be right with you throughout your entire performance. So relax and have fun! The more you enjoy yourself while you’re giving a presentation, the easier it is to connect with your audience and sound more credible. 

So what was my outrageous costume this weekend? For now, I’m keeping that a secret. However, the first person to guess correctly by posting your answers here will receive a signed copy of my book, Roadmap to Success. So keep those guesses coming!

Steven Tyler’s Rooster Feathers are a High Performance Prop

In entertainment, performance, and even public speaking, props play an important role when creating an image or making a key point. Whether your prop is something you hold or something you wear, your audience will connect it to your message, thus making your points more memorable. For example, I know a professional speaker whose signature prop is a hat. She wears one every time she gives a speech, and her audiences have come to expect it. She is so well known for her hats that her audience once arrived to her event all wearing hats—in tribute to her. That’s the kind of contagious prop that is worth cultivating.

But the prop to end all props right now is Steven Tyler’s hair feathers. Yes…hair feathers. And according to a story I recently heard on NPR, the popularity of his feathers is placing big demands on Whiting Farms, the feathers’ producers.

Located in western Colorado, Whiting Farms sells feather products for fly-fishing to over 50 countries. They specialize in raising specific chickens and roosters, and are well known for providing top flies to fly fisherman. They have a loyal customer base who create their own flies and who swear by the feathers Whiting Farms provides. Apparently, fly-fishing is a creative process and the fishermen say that the rooster feathers they buy from Whiting Farms are an integral part of the success in catching fish.

Now here’s the dilemma: Ever since Steven Tyler has been wearing these feathers in his hair, thousands of young girls want feathers in their hair too. And just any old feather won’t do—they want the exact same feathers Tyler wears. Whiting Farms is having a tough time keeping up with the demand from this new market.

This just goes to show how much impact a seemingly simple prop can have. If you follow American Idol (or if you’re a fan of Steven Tyler), you probably know that Tyler is always in costume. Even though he appears rather disheveled, everything he wears has been meticulously selected, coordinated, assembled, and crafted to create the image of what we see each week. Nothing is left to chance. As Tyler once said, paraphrasing Dolly Parton, “You have no idea how much it costs to look this cheap.”

Even his hair feathers from Whiting Farms are strategically placed. Now the feathers have become all the rage in boutiques throughout America as customers ask their stylists to integrate feathers into their every day hair styles.

As a result, Whiting Farms can’t keep up with the demand from the salons. At least 50 percent of their inventory is going to the salons now, and even when they raise their prices, the salons still order the feathers. The farm is actually concerned that they may lose some of their loyal fly fishermen because they can’t meet the demand.

So what’s your prop? What key item or piece of clothing can become your signature—something that increases your recognition and makes you memorable? From hats to feathers, the possibilities are endless. Just please choose wisely—you don’t want your prop to ruffle any feathers!

Rebecca Black: Public Speaking & Life Lessons from a 13-Year-Old Pop Sensation

Have you heard of Rebecca Black yet? If not, you probably will soon. She is a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents hired Ark Music Factory to produce a music video for her. If you haven’t seen it, here it is. But I warn you…while Rebecca is a sweet young teenager who may indeed be the next Miley Cyrus, I doubt you’ll be amazed at this video.

 

After her music video Friday was produced and released on March 14, 2011, it went viral on YouTube. As of this writing, it has had over 84 million viewers. She has been awarded just over 210,000 “likes” and over 1.6 million “dislikes”. So yes…she is famous for being among the most disliked people on You Tube, and her song has been dubbed “the worst song ever made”! But fame or infamy…all press is good press, and reports show that she has made well over $1 million for her efforts.

I don’t agree that Rebecca Black has little musical talent and poor performance skills, or that the video is insipid and of poor quality, or even that the song is imbecilic. All those things may be true, but overall, Rebecca comes across well. She looks comfortable and confident in front of the camera, has a sweet smile, relates well to the crowd she is singing to, and has a certain freshness and innocent appeal.

But obviously what I think matters little. (Aside from the fact that she’s getting some positive free press from me!) The point is that this young girl made a video that went viral, most people dislike it, and yet she has still fallen into the arms of success. Celebrity in the internet age is nothing short of phenomenal. But rather than sit around scratching our heads and wondering how this happened or rush to her video and click “like” or “dislike,” we’d be better off thinking about the lessons we can learn that can help us succeed. Here are a few:

  • Embrace risk. Of course, not every young girl has the parental support and resources to fund a project like this, but aside from the steep investment (approximately $4,000) what sticks out for me is Rebecca’s willingness to take a risk and put herself out there with absolutely no guarantee of success. If she had talked herself out of doing this video for any reason she would never be experiencing the fame and success she is enjoying today. How many of us lose faith in our projects and ourselves before we’ve even had a chance to test the concept? So even if you don’t have your parent’s funding, find a way to take a risk.
  • Go public with the best you have. While perfectionism is an important skill for success, sometimes it can get in the way. Nothing in Rebecca’s video is perfect. Yet its ability to work or not work, depending on your perspective, has given it a life of its own. How many of us are paralyzed by our desire for perfection before releasing our work to the world? Realize that perfection in anything is simply not possible. Do your best, and let it go.
  • Increase your expectations. Fantasy is usually not a recommended strategy for building a realistic project plan, but vision is a necessity. A strong, clear vision provides a better chance for success than just about anything. Even if the forces are against you, when you have a clear vision there is always the possibility that success is within reach. So why not think big?
  • Welcome the unexpected. In any project plan it’s important to have a Plan B or a “what if.” In Rebecca’s case, her stardom was generated from a completely unexpected source—her success sprung from a well of “dislikes.” The most unpopular girl on YouTube is also the most famous. She and her family could have run from this unusual development—but they didn’t. Sometimes the journey to our goal can take an unexpected turn and we get what we want in ways we can never imagine.
  • Be grateful. What do you do when you take a risk, give it your best, think big, accept the unexpected, and are successful? There’s only one thing left to do…think about all those who helped you along the way, including the unpredictable hand of fate. Then ask yourself, “For what and to whom am I grateful?”

Even though I doubt I’ll download Rebecca’s song into my iTunes any time soon, I do admire her willingness to take a risk and put her work out there. She’s proof that when you think big and go for your dreams, you can be a success…regardless of what other people think.

The Best “San Francisco” Speakers at SXSW

Tomorrow begins the twenty-fifth annual South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive media, film and music conference. Nearly 12,000 registrants will invade Austin, TX from March 11th -20th for an all-out entertainment extravaganza. Amidst the product launches, movie premiers, and concerts will be hundreds of experts featured on panels such as “Speaking to Geeks,” “The State of 3D in Cinema,” and “How to Save College Radio.” In addition, celebrities like Yoko Ono, Mike Tyson, and Duran Duran will take part in candid interviews about their careers. The official presentation platform for SXSW Interactive comes from the San Francisco-based company SlideRocket. I’m very impressed (and nearly overwhelmed) with all of its features. Users can purchase graphic content from the SlideRocket marketplace to create their visual slides, access their presentation from any computer with an Internet connection, conduct online conferences akin to WebEx, and receive user analytics for key metrics such as who viewed the presentation and what components they clicked on.

Using SlideRocket will be a bevy of intriguing San Francisco speakers. I’ve listed below my top five. Please feel free to post to the comments section any presentations that you think should be added to my list:

1) Adam Savage (@donttrythis) - MythBusters

As one of the co-hosts of The Discovery Channel's "MythBusters," Adam Savage is both a proponent of DIY trouble-making and an outspoken advocate for science over rumor. Savage has to balance the enthusiasms that spring for wanting to see something for oneself with the hard facts that have been proven by others time and again. An industrial designer and special effects supervisor prior to busting myths, Savage brings an engineer's methodology to the problems not just of urban myths and historic legends but also to the larger issues of scientific illiteracy and “know-nothing-ism” in American culture.

Update: This event has been canceled. More information can be found here.

2) Jill Okawa Fletcher (@JillOinSF)– Virgin America

Jill Okawa Fletcher has eight years of experience in building online communities and leveraging new media to spark consumer brand engagement. She currently leads social media strategy at Virgin America. As a panel member of “Go Here, Do This: Location + Collective,” Jill will discuss how tools like group-purchasing sites created around local communities and mobile check-in apps are being focused towards completing a specific action. She’ll also explore the delicate balance between pushing an action or a message while maintaining the organic feel that characterizes these movements.

3) Richard Brewer-Hay (@ebayinkblog) - eBay

With advances in networks, online communities and the ability to become one’s own content producer and influencer, the face of Public Relations is changing. Richard Brewer-Hay is the Chief Blogger for eBay’s corporate blog. His discussion topic is called “Why PR’s Future May Not Look Like PR,” and will explore PR’s shifting focus from communications to engagement in increasingly public spaces both online and off.

4) Parker Harris (@parkerharris) – Salesforce.com

After many years, there now appears to be agreement -- from traditional software vendors to web-based companies -- that we are now shifting from the desktop to the cloud. This panel, entitled “Thunder in the Clouds,” features the co-founder of salesforce.com, Parker Harris. Parker and several other cloud pioneers and experts will debate the state of cloud computing and where its future lies.

5) Adam Kleinberg (@adamkleinberg) - Traction

If you’ve ever received sneers and rolling eyes from your employees, you need to see Adam Kleinberg’s presentation entitled “Seven Reasons Your Employees Hate You.” Adam will be sharing how he’s screwed up time repeatedly as CEO of Traction (www.tractionco.com), rated the #1 interactive agency in the US for 2009 and #1399 on the Inc 5000 list of fastest growing companies. Learn from his mistakes and avoid making them yourself.

As you attend these or any other discussion panels, leave comments below with your opinions on how they went. Lastly, I’ll leave you with this highly informative video guide on how to be your South By South Best:

In Celebration of Black History Month: The Legacy of Booker T. Washington

"The highest test of the civilization of any race is in its willingness to extend a helping hand to the less fortunate. A race, like an individual, lifts itself up by lifting others up." -- Booker T. Washington I became reacquainted with the legacy of Booker T. Washington a few years ago when I received a call from his great granddaughter, Sarah O’Neal Rush. Sarah is an educator and counselor who is also the founder and executive director of the Booker T. Washington Empowerment Network (BTWEN). Sarah works primarily with “at risk” youth in East Oakland California.

When she called me, she had been asked to give a speech at the 150th birthday tribute to her great grandfather. It was a high stakes presentation; she was anxious and she wanted to do a great job. I was more than willing to help her prepare.

Working with Sarah was like stepping back in time. The story she told took place deep in the annals of African American history. In the process of developing her speech, she told me about her great grandfather’s many accomplishments and contributions. I learned that Booker T. Washington was an extraordinary man.

The Real Booker T. Washington Though the term “at risk youth” did not exist during the time Booker T. Washington lived, you could say that given his extreme circumstances Washington was indeed “at risk.” Born April 5, 1856, Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery in rural Virginia to a slave mother and white father. After emancipation, he worked in a variety of manual labor jobs before making his way to Hampton Roads to seek an education. In the midst of poverty and hardship, he still believed that he wanted to better himself and he knew that education was the key.

His strong desire, hard work, and determination fueled his decisions and created opportunities where none existed—and these traits led him to great success. As an educator, author, orator, and political leader, he was the single most important figure in the African American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915.

Now fast forward to his great granddaughter, Sarah O’Neill Rush. In her work with “at risk youth” Sarah is continuing the legacy of her great grandfather. Through speaking, writing, discussions, and book readings, Sarah empowers children, teens, and adults to rise above life’s challenges, embrace their life story, increase self-worth, and build healthy relationships. As an author, a mental health professional with a master’s degree in psychology, and one who has risen above many challenges, Sarah is, like her great grandfather, an inspiring and motivating African American leader.

While Sarah is not a famous person or a political leader, what she shares with her great grandfather is her determination to improve her life and the lives of those who are most “at risk.” She is willing to “extend a helping hand to the less fortunate.”

Here is an excerpt from the speech that Sarah gave at the 150th birthday of her great grandfather.

“I relate well to these children and they pull deeply at my heartstrings, because, while I did not suffer as deeply as some of the children I work with, I too was an ‘at-risk’ youth. I was a single teenage mother at the age of 16. At the age of 17, I lived on my own raising my one-year old son in a drug-infested housing project in East Oakland, way on the other side of town from my high school.

“I would get up very early in the morning, get us both dressed, catch two buses to school, drop my son off at day care, and rush to class. Yet with those overwhelming odds, I still managed to graduate from high school six months ahead of my class, having the grades and more than enough credits to do so.

“My strong desire and determination to have a better life began to drive my choices, and having my mother as a role model for hard work all of my life, inspired me to succeed. And it probably didn’t hurt that I had Booker T. Washington’s blood running through my veins.”

Last summer Sarah led eight youth and three mentors on a youth development program that she called Freedom Journey. This program is a rite of passage following the footsteps of her great grandfather from slavery to freedom. For the teens who went on this trip, connecting with their past was a powerful experience that will hopefully inform and inspire their future. This was definitely a journey worth taking.

Booker T. Washington was “at risk,” yet he persevered in helping others and paving the way for equality and justice. Sarah O’Neill Rush was “at risk,” yet she persevered in achieving an education and giving back to those in greater need. Today, the young people Sarah works with are “at risk,” and with Sarah’s help, they too will persevere.

It’s January 31, 2011: Do You Know Where Your New Year’s Resolutions Are?

You took the time to think about the areas in your life where you’d like to make changes and you carefully crafted your 2011 New Year’s Resolutions. Maybe you wrote them down, typed them up, put them on your wall, or shared them with your friends and family. Now, here it is a few weeks into the New Year. How are you doing on those resolutions? If you’ve already abandoned one or more of your goals, don’t feel bad; you’re not alone. Research shows that nearly 45% of American adults make one or more resolutions each year. And by the end of week one, 25% have already jumped ship. After one month, 36% have given up, and after six months, more than half throw in the towel.

Even though many people who make New Year’s resolutions do break them, research also shows that making resolutions is useful. In fact, people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions. Still, the question begs to be asked: Why do humans pick a single point in time each year to try to change certain things in their life — behaviors, habits, attitudes — make resolutions about them, and then proceed to fail at them within a month’s time?

While we may never know the answer to that question, we do know a few tricks to keep you committed to your resolutions so you actually attain them.

  • Believe in yourself. You’ll do better on your New Year’s goals if you believe that self-control is an unlimited resource we all have access to and can leverage with our resolutions. The more you believe in your own capabilities, the more likely you will succeed.
  • Learn the proper skills. Having the actual skills to make the changes you’re proposing for your life will make goal attainment easier. For instance, it’s great to say that you want to quit smoking. But do you really have any idea how to do so? Researching the skills you need and developing them before embarking on your goal will make all the difference.
  • Keep track of your progress. You probably won’t completely fulfill your resolutions after only one week or even one month. However, you likely have made some small progress during that time. Rather than focusing only on whether you attained your goals, look at the small successes you are attaining along the way…and celebrate them. Doing so will keep you motivated to stay true to your resolutions.

So, what are some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions that pertain to public speaking? According to my clients:

  • Planning ahead of time
  • Preparing my slides a few days in advance
  • Beginning to prepare as soon as I know the date of my presentation
  • Working with a speech coach
  • Learning more about giving web presentations
  • Rehearsing in front of my team, colleagues, friends
  • Practicing one skill every week—eye contact, speaking slowly, enunciation, etc.

No matter what your New Year’s resolutions were, don’t give up! We’re in the infancy of 2011. If you are going to abandon your resolutions, wait at least until adolescence!

Winning the Future: Reflections on President Obama’s State of the Union Address

I love the pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union address. Anytime our leaders gather together to celebrate our history and our future, I am moved and inspired. I was especially so last night as I watched President Obama take control of the podium and deliver a well-structured speech that reiterated for all of us our unique and inspiring history. In his “story of ordinary people who dare to dream,” he was included, as was Joe Biden and John Boehner. From the moment he walked down the aisle and silenced the applauding crowd, I was (as I always am) struck by his easy charisma and presidential stature. He carries himself with confidence and certainty.  He is a leader who is so much in charge that he’s not afraid to set limits or to compromise. Either position is within his reach to use when required. He demonstrated this range last night as he moved nimbly from softness to seriousness.

Of course, the response to his speech from pundits and the American public was mixed. A CBS News poll of speech watchers, which was conducted online by Knowledge Networks immediately after the president’s address, showed that 91 percent of those who watched the speech approved of the proposals President Obama put forth during his remarks. Only nine percent disapproved. Despite that, some pundits claimed the speech missed the mark, even saying, “The speech is a mathematical riddle that can’t be solved.” (If anyone understands what that means, please let me know.)

I’m not a domestic or foreign policy expert, nor am I a political commentator. So I won’t comment on the proposals and ideas the president put forth. I am, however, a citizen, a speech coach, and a communication expert. And as far as I am concerned, President Obama captured my attention as he stepped into the rhythm of the Connection Loop and engaged us with his usual accessible style and well-structured message.

In fact, it was a beautifully sculpted speech. He told stories, used data, quoted others, asked rhetorical questions, asked for our involvement, used humor, used metaphors, and in general, used the rule of three to capture our attention, build his case, and inspire us to act. For example, after his opening remarks, he laid out his three point agenda: Innovation, education, and infrastructure by saying, “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Likewise, while laying out his agenda for the year and the challenge to the leadership, he asked everyone “to step up, work together, and make it happen.”

He also gave us some highly quotable moments and phrases that are sure to become part of our public domain database. Some highlights that struck me were:

  • “What comes of this moment is not whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”
  • “The future is ours to win”
  • “We do big things.”
  • “Innovation doesn’t just change our lives; it is how we make our living.”
  • “It’s not just the winner of the super bowl that should be celebrated; it’s the winner of the science fair.”
  • “If you want to make a difference, become a teacher. Your nation needs you!”
  • “Connecting every part of America to the digital age.”

Throughout the speech was his underlying constant rhythm of optimism. Yes, this was an uplifting speech—a speech that said in a completely new way, “Yes We Can.”

No matter what side of the political spectrum you adhere to, no one can deny that President Obama is a masterful presenter—someone who not only comes alive before an audience, but also someone who engages the hearts and minds of his listeners. So even if you don’t want to be the leader of the free world, but simply the leader in your industry or topic, then observe and listen to the president’s speech. He is definitely someone all presenters should watch and emulate.